Research training under the microscopeJul 16th, 2012 | By Stephen Hinshaw | Category: Current Issue, G1, G2, G3 and beyond
This article is part of the DMS Bulletin’s continuing effort to cover developing issues in graduate education and post-graduate life. For more information on changes in training philosophy in the sciences and on life after graduate school, please check out these other recent Bulletin articles:
BBS Admissions: Identifying young scientists, answering life’s persistent questions
Student Leaders Speak Out as DMS Paths Get Rolling
Fourteen years ago, Dr. Shirley Tilghman, the President of Princeton University, was a visionary. Now, in 2012, she is at the forefront of a movement to redefine training in biomedical and behavioral science. Tilghman chaired a 1998 National Research Council (NRC) committee on life science training that spoke out then in favor of “constrain(ing) the rate of growth in the number of graduate students,” and decried a “crisis of expectations” for those pursuing biomedical careers .
On June 14th of this year, Tilghman and a new group of colleagues presented their white paper recommendations  to National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins. After fourteen years, the message is the same. But, this time, expectations have become realities, and suggestions have become calls to action.
A problem too big to ignore
Division of Medical Sciences graduate Betsy-Ohlsson Wilhelm (PhD in Bacteriology, 1969) is charmingly concise in describing the problem; “It just doesn’t make sense anymore to train replacement professors .” This sentiment, voiced in a multitude of ways, is a major concern for all those involved in graduate education. It’s a problem now receiving major press. Professors Henry R. Bourne and Mark O. Lively warned in a recent editorial in Science that, “Many in the rising generation of young researchers (…) will drown,” and, “The model for funding U.S. biomedical research is close to collapse .” Despite these worries – and despite Tilghman’s warning in 1998 – the number of graduate students is roughly twice what it was two decades ago . Not only is the problem persistent, but the number of people who should be worried about it is growing.
Enter Francis Collins. In December 2010, just over one year into his service at the helm, the NIH Director requested that the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) create a workgroup to make a data-informed series of recommendations for creating a biomedical workforce. In the words of Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program Head and HMS Professor of Cell Biology David Van Vactor, the directive was to define a “pipeline for biomedical research training .“ In response to worries about the health of higher education in the biomedical sciences, it appeared that the NIH had finally said, with every appearance of seriousness, “This is a real problem. What can we do about it?” Now the workgroup, headed by Tilghman, has responded.
Team of twelve – a shared purpose
In addition to Dr. Shirley Tilghman, there are twelve members of the “external working group on the future biomedical workforce.” Formed in April of 2011, it is an auspicious list of names, including Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Richard Lifton, PhD (Yale University), Johnson & Johnson corporate vice president Gary Neil, MD, and professor and dean at the Watson School of Biological Sciences Lemor Joshua-Tor, PhD . Co-chairing the committee, along with Professor Shirley Tilghman, is NIH deputy director for extramural research Sally Rockney, PhD. It is a measure of the need for action that the working group met eleven times in 2011 and 2012. Four of those meetings were in person .
The report itself is clear in purpose and in it’s recommendations to the Director. Analysis is split into seven sections, with those concerning graduate training and post-doctoral training receiving the most attention. In all sections, the authors cite a need for better data on what biomedical researchers are actually doing. Other themes include improving the quality of life for members of the biomedical research workforce and disseminating accurate information about career outcomes.
For Tilghman and colleagues, the greatest concern seems to be for biomedical graduate students. The number of PhD students that move into tenure-track or tenured faculty positions has dropped from 34 percent in 1993 to 26 percent . The other three quarters (and surely more for today’s students) find jobs elsewhere. But the working group points to a worrying trend: growth areas for employment are those that do not require research skills or even graduate training in science. In contrast to Tilghman and company’s strident 1998 call to restrain growth in graduate student enrollment – a call which was ignored, largely due to the subsequent doubling of the NIH budget – the current strategy focuses on asking graduate programs to reflect these changes in employment demographics in their training plans.
Recommendations for the future, recommendations for now
The report recommends clear courses of action to accomplish these new training mandates. First, the working group would have the NIH make funding available, under the auspices of existing training grants, for new programs that would address broadening employment realities and also shorten the PhD. These may include parallel degree programs and would require a redefinition of “success” for training grant reviews. In fact, this shift in evaluation procedures for training grants ought to happen now, according to the report. Finally, there is a strong recommendation for a cap on NIH funding for graduate students at six years.
With a handful of exceptions, the working group’s recommendations for post-doctoral training mirror those for graduate training. The authors emphasize training grants and fellowships, new funding for diverse training opportunities, and a possible NIH-mandated cap in post-doctoral training length. Additionally, Tilghman and colleagues advocate higher salaries, better benefits, and an increase in awards that classify as pathways to independence, including K99 grants and NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards. For both graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, the working group recommends funding realignment “without increasing the overall number” of positions.
In both cases, but particularly for post-doctoral researchers, the authors malign the lack of good data. A whole section, entitled “Information Collection, Analysis, and Dissemination” is devoted to the issue. The report authors put it plainly in saying, “The working group was frustrated and sometimes stymied throughout its study by the lack of comprehensive data regarding biomedical researchers.” They cite “major gaps in data for foreign-trained postdocs and industry workers.” Consequently, NIH money ought to carry with it the stipulation that benefiting institutions must collect and provide statistics on career outcomes for graduate students and postdocs. For graduate students these statistics ought to include completion rates, time to graduation, and career outcomes. Finally, the working group explicitly requests that a permanent NIH unit be set up to monitor this in collaboration with other funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation.
More reports, more concerns, more ideas
The week of June 14th, 2012 also saw the publication of two other major reports. The NRC released its Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to our Nation’s Prosperity, and another NIH ACD working group made available its recommendations for encouraging diversity in the biomedical research workforce [7,8]. The NRC report title is misleading. Far from a tear-away section in the supermarket checkout line, the report is thick – 227 pages – and the product of a complex bureaucracy. It outlines guidelines for and encourages government spending on academic research, calls for efficiency on the part of institutions receiving funding, and pleads for a containment of administrative and legislative barriers to research .
It is undoubtedly an exciting time to be a legislator thinking about the future of science in the United States. For different and less pleasant reasons, it is also an exciting time to be doing science in America. The futures of the institutions funding and organizing biomedical research are uncertain. It would be irresponsible for scientists themselves – the “workforce” so constantly referenced in these reports – to remain unaware of and inactive in the coming decision processes that will affect the very fabric of research in the United States for the foreseeable future.
 National Research Council (US) Committee on Dimensions, Causes, and Implications of Recent Trends in the Careers of Life Scientists. (1998). Trends in the early careers of life scientists. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
 A Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the Director. (2012). Biomedical research workforce working group draft report. National Institutes of Health.
 Hinshaw, S. (2012). DMS Bulletin – DMS students play the field., 2012, from http://dmsbulletin.hms.harvard.edu/?p=1230
 Bourne, H., & Lively, M. (2012, Published online July 5, 2012). Iceberg alert for NIH. Science Express,
 Hinshaw, S. (2012). DMS Bulletin – DMS admissions., 2012, from http://dmsbulletin.hms.harvard.edu/?p=1899
 NIH Office of Communications. (2011). Biomedical workforce task force., 2012, from http://acd.od.nih.gov.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/bwf.htm
 Board on Higher Education and Workforce (BHEW). (2012). Research universities and the future of America: Ten breakthrough actions vital to our Nation’s prosperity. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
 Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce (WGDBRW). (2012). Draft report of the advisory committee to the director working group on diversity in the biomedical research workforce. National Institutes of Health.
 Cahoon, R. (2012). The national research Council’s (NRC) committee on research universities released the report: Research universities and the future of America: Ten breakthrough actions vital to our Nation’s prosperity and security., 2012, from http://osp.fad.harvard.edu/blog/the-national-research-council%E2%80%99s-nrc-committee-on-research-universities-released-the-report-rese